The List

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

~Billy Collins “Downpour”

Since the count began, the list of those who have died expands every day in media headlines and increases by the hour on websites dedicated to COVID tracking – –

–only there are no names. We don’t list the names of those who have been lost.

Maybe if there were names of over one million people around the globe that the virus has hastened to take from us, somehow it would matter more. Maybe if we witnessed the suffering that accompanied each case, we would understand this is more than “just like the flu.”

I’ve seen the flu kill the young and healthy, so hearing that comparison doesn’t comfort me or cause me to wave this off as something that will pass as soon as the election results are tallied. Even some health care workers are remarkably nonchalant and dismissive of the virus. I simply don’t understand: after decades of pandemic planning in my work as a medical director/health officer, this is the situation we all dreaded could happen, but knew we needed to be ready for.

I don’t want to see anyone else added to a list that is far longer than it ever should have been and growing by the day. Yet the tallies rise because our very own behavior, modeled from the very top of government, is responsible.

Will anyone someday build a monument listing the names of those who died in this pandemic? No, because there is nothing noble about dying of a virus and the list would be far too long. There is nothing noble about failing to protect others in the name of protecting my own individual liberty and civil rights.

So I wear the mask and so should you. It just might keep me or you or someone we love from being just another number on the list.

The Nation-healing Tree of Life

Sometimes, hard-trying,
it seems I cannot pray–
For doubt, and pain,

and anger, and all strife.

Yet some poor half-fledged prayer-bird from the nest
May fall, flit, fly, perch–crouch in the bowery breast
Of the large, nation-healing tree of life;–


Moveless there sit

through all the burning day,
And on my heart at night

a fresh leaf cooling lay.
~George MacDonald from Diary of an Old Soul

I suspect I’m not the only U.S. citizen who slept fitfully last night, anxious about the election and how our nation’s peoples will accept and move on with life once official results are reported.

There can be no response but to bow in earnest prayer, waiting for a long-needed hatching of healing peace for our diverse beliefs and opinions.

Our lives are half-fledged, not yet fully delivered nor understood, doubt and distrust burns into our flesh like thorns on fire. 

We have become a seething-angry and moaning-sore nation — today we will be further divided between those who win and those who lose.  The moral high ground will go to the graceful loser who concedes defeat in a spirit of unity without stoking the fires of discontent. A gloating winner would bloat us all beyond recognition.

May our prayers for peace rise like a dove from hearts in turmoil,  once again to soar on the wings of eagles.

Peace, come quickly.
Be moved within us; no longer immobile.
Cool our angry words.
Take us to higher ground.
Plow deep our hearts.

Trying Their Wings

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.

I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

~James Wright from “Beginning” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

I am holding my breath today,
trying to be still
and wait.
It is time to listen, watching.

Light spills iridescence:
its fragments dot the surface of this bleak earth,
illuminating the darkness.

I can reflect the Light or remain in the dark.
Having been chosen,
I can try my wings.

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

Merely to Be There

That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire,
with the kettle just beginning to sing!
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit

We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will;
then it’s time to break our necks for home.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg  from A Light in the Barn

I have always been, and always will be a home-body. As a child, I was hopelessly homesick and miserable whenever I visited overnight somewhere else: not my bed, not my window, not anything that was familiar and comfortable. Going away to college was an ordeal and I had to do two runs at it to finally feel at home somewhere else. I traveled plenty during those young adult years and adapted to new and exotic environs, but never easily.

I haven’t changed much in my older years. Even now, travel is fraught with anxiety for me, not anticipation. I secretly had hoped for a prolonged stay-cation for a change rather than rushing about at break-neck speed when we had a few days off from work. I must be careful for what I wish for, as it is now seven months of stay-and-work-at-home with only two brief sojourns to visit out of town children.

It has been blissful — yet I dare not say that out loud as so many people don’t do well staying at home and are kicking the traces to be set free.

Not so me. I am content on our farm, appreciating our “perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

Merely allowed to just be here is my ultimate answer to weariness, fear and sadness.

I Wonder What I Owe

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.
~Joyce Sutphen “On the Shortest Days” from Modern Love & Other Myths.

While spending my day at my desk talking to faces on a screen,
as I will today and every day,
the names and stories and symptoms change every half hour.
I sometimes glance up and out my window to the world beyond,
concerned not to break eye contact.

I want to say:
don’t you know this darkness surrounding you won’t last,
while this day is fading
you can turn on the light that you were given
to find your way out of this.

I wonder if I owe it to you to tell you
when I was young and afraid and away from home
I didn’t believe the light was there either,
or it wouldn’t turn on, or it burned out so I
I felt swallowed by the darkness.

Then someone gave me a ladder to climb out
and lit my light so I could see where I was going.

Here I am now,
handing you a working light and a sturdy ladder
and telling you how to use them.



Let Go

l (a

le
af
fa
ll

s)
one
l
iness…

~e.e. cummings “loneliness”

I feel like I’m the only one
to fall
until landing in a cushion of others,
comforted.

or I find myself dangling suspended,
twisting and turning in the slightest breeze
not knowing when the fall will come.

Today I’m both~
one alone
amid many together

held by a slender silken thread
until the moment comes
when I’m finally let go.

Where Time and Eternity Meet

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

photo by Julie Garrett

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are

children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.

No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Everything Dies Too Soon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver from “A Summer Day”

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon…

And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wild flowers.

~Billy Collins from “Memento Mori“

I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.

Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.

Much too soon.

So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.

I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.